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Senate's old guard and new guard clash over role of independent senators

OTTAWA — Two senators are seeking disciplinary measures against one another in what boils down to a clash between the new and old guards in the Senate.

The dispute is between Sen. Pierre Dalphond, one of the new, more independent, less partisan senators, and Sen. Don Plett, leader of the Conservative Senate caucus, the last remaining unabashedly partisan group in the upper house.

It revolves around Dalphond’s accusation last month that Plett was preventing the launch of a long-awaited and legally required parliamentary review of Canada’s medically assisted dying regime.

Dalphond, a member of the Progressive Senate Group, told The Canadian Press that Plett was refusing to name a Conservative senator to sit on a special joint parliamentary committee until he got a guarantee that his choice would also be named committee co-chair — a “blank cheque” that Dalphond said he and other independent-minded senators on the committee were not prepared to give.

But Plett maintains Dalphond breached four different Senate rules in making that accusation: using unparliamentary language, impugning the motives of a fellow senator, misleading the Senate and betraying details of confidential negotiations among the leaders of the five Senate groups about the committee’s make-up.

Daphond counters that it’s Plett who revealed details of confidential negotiations and did so in a misleading way.

Each is suggesting that disciplinary action against the other is warranted and have asked Senate Speaker George Furey to rule on the mattter.

Furey took the matter under advisement Tuesday, after hearing from both Dalphond and Plett.

Plett did eventually name Sen. Yonah Martin to the joint committee, well after the April 23 deadline unanimously agreed to by the Senate for naming its members. She was chosen to co-chair it, along with Liberal MP Hedy Fry, at the committee’s first meeting last week.

In the meantime, Plett raised a point of order asking Furey to rule that Dalphond had breached Senate rules and reserving his right to ask for disciplinary measures.

He argued that Dalphond had endangered “an already fragile equilibrium” in the Senate by undermining the ability of caucus leaders to engage in confidential negotiations.

“We cannot expect this place to function if there is not a minimum level of trust and respect between the leaders,” Plett said.

Responding to Plett’s point of order Tuesday, Dalphond said the dispute essentially boils down to Plett refusing to accept that the vast majority of senators are now independent and can’t be whipped by their caucus leaders on anything, including the choice of committee chairs.

“There’s no valid point of order here but only an attempt by the leader of the Conservative group to discipline a member of another group,” Dalphond, a former judge, told the Senate.

“In other words, the rank and file senators — the ‘nobody’ senators, to quote him — must implement whatever agreement the leaders have reached. Unfortunately for him, this is not the reality of the current Senate.”

Independent senators now make up about 75 per cent of the upper house, Dalphond said, and they believe “equality and independence are critical to the proper functioning of the Senate as a chamber of sober second thought, they don’t accept to be whipped, they don’t accept to be told how to vote and they don’t provide blank cheques.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2021.

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press